The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #43251   Message #631508
20-Jan-02 - 02:55 AM
Thread Name: Why did John Henry hammer till he died?
Subject: RE: Why did John Henry hammer till he died?
After wading through all the bullshit, I'm not sure that the originator of this thread has the patience to get this far. But, here goes anyway.
Leadbelly told me once that John Henry was a huge man (Leadbelly was no midget by any means) he was ambidextrous and swung a hammer with each hand (one handed) alternating between right and left. I don't know if this is fact or fancy, but the following is what I found with some serious research when I was a lot younger and REALLY cared about such things. This was about 55 years ago.

John Henry was a steel driver, a man who drove star drills into solid rock with a hammer. These holes were for the purpose of setting dynamite charges (or black powder) to carve railroad tunnels out of mountains. This is still the way it's done. Next time you're on an Interstate Highway, pay attention to the drill marks on the sides of "rock cuts" A good powder man doesn't wast the explosives and there WILL be drill marks on the rock faces. Which has nothing to do with this. As it says in the ballad, John Henry and the other steel drivers were faced with obsolescence by the invention of the steam drill, a predicesor of the jackhammer which is a compressed air machine and much more versatile and mobile than the steam drill.

John Henry was working for the Chesapeak and Ohio Railroad which was droilling a tunnel through a place called "Big Bend". I don't remember if it was in Ohio, Virginia or where. Anyway, they did set up a contest between John Henry and the steam drill after Mr Henry said that he could drive steel faster than any soulless machine. The steam drill wasn't all that fast, not as fast as the phnuematic Jack Hammer, by any means. But, it was a hell of a lot cheaper than hiring a lot of steel drivers and shakers. It could drill at about the same speed as any above average steel driver. John Henry drove his star drills a total of fifteen feet in the alloted time, and, the steam drill only drovce it's drills nine feet. Joh Henry we4nt home to his wife, ate supper, went to bed, and died of a cerebral haemmorage that night. That's what I can remember about the research I did more than half a century ago.

As I've said many times before, "don't depend on what ANY so called expert tells you, ESPECIALLY ME. Do your own research. It's a fascinating story, about a very real man in a very real contest with automation. It, automation, is the very real cause of unemployment.